In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice which Iāve been turning over in my mind ever since. āNever expect a literary film adaptation to be as good as the book itās based on.ā Iāll tell you Godās truth, old sport, he was right.
Baz Luhrmannās celluloid celebration of F. Scott Fitzgeraldās Great American Novel is finally here. People bewitched by the bookās beauty (aka everyone who has ever read it) have held fear in their bated breath ever since they knew Luhrmann was directing. This guyās approach to filmmaking is basically āroll camera, throw sequins, add musicā, so he didnāt seem like the right fit for a nuanced tale of fancy and longing that drifts like sunlight dust motes and bewitches like hemlock. You know another thing, old sport? They were right. Fitzgeraldās buried misery and quiet tragedy is in the wrong hands. Foul dust, silver pepper and unquiet darkness are nowhere to be seen.
Still, this film will probably be a sparkling slice of energetic beauty and emotion for people who have never read the book, and it has every right to be cherished as a film on itās own ā but beware of the beauty it misses.
The novelās narcotic atmosphere and uneasy mood is lumped into cinematic set pieces and exposition that lurch like locomotives with emotion dragging behind; symbols once beautiful are overwrought ā by the end, green lights will piss you off to the point that driving home from the cinema will be an exercise in catastrophe. The occasional heart-stopping grace of a Fitzgerald line out of a characterās mouth or through the voiceover are welcome.
Leonardo DiCaprio is the Great one, full of that frightening desperation when the film gives him breathing space, though most often he must smile while half the filmās budget blows up in fireworks behind him. Elizabeth Debicki has Jordan Bakerās snobbery nailed; and Joel Edgerton exudes everything for which I have an unaffected scorn as the arrogant and ignorant Tom Buchanan. Carey Mulligan heaves the film onto her delicate shoulders as Daisy, tinkling with fancy that stems from resigned misery to her gilded cage as an upper-class debutante. The disaster is Tobey Maguireās Nick Carraway ā he is the person with whom we must identify in this world, and we canāt do that if his facial expression never changes from that of a person vaguely startled by a passing bird. Make an effort, Spiderman.
Beyonceās baby daddy executive-produced the soundtrack, boasting Florence + the Machine and an overwhelming amount of Lana Del Rey alongside some jazz. Itās a wicked record on its own terms, but is it suited to Fitzgeraldās heroes? Flashy and restless, Luhrmann can make amazing and grandiose films, but trying to squeeze that formula into the mould of The Great Gatsby is taking the novel for its surface value.
Of course, some argue that certain novels are un-filmable. Maybe, then, we should leave Fitzgeraldās misted beauty on the page, in the twenties, where it belongs, instead of dragging it forwards into our digital sarcophagus. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
An extended version of this review can be read atĀ Celluloidoxygen.